Cloquet gets its ‘Wish’ with new arson detection dogThere’s a new dog in town, and she’s ready to nose out arson.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
There’s a new dog in town, and she’s ready to nose out arson.
The Cloquet Area Fire District’s (CAFD) newest investigator is accelerant detection K-9, “Wish,” a 17-month-old “Goldador” (golden retriever/Labrador mix) from Indiana.
She and handler Jason Maki, a CAFD firefighter/paramedic/investigator, recently completed a five-week canine accelerant detection school sponsored by State Farm Insurance and certified by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. They returned to Cloquet on May 11, and are now ready to take up their duties as a team.
Wish replaces the department’s long-time arson detection dog, Nick, who served from 2001-2010 alongside CAFD Battalion Chief Gordy Meagher. Funded through a grant from State Farm Insurance Companies, Nick was the only arson detection dog in the region and was called upon to assist in finding the source of suspicious fires across the state and as far away as Iowa, Illinois and Colorado.
Following Nick’s retirement, Meagher helped the department apply for grant funding from State Farm once again in order to secure a new dog, and the grant was approved.
“I think the thing that really sealed the deal was the fact this was considered a continuation of our original program,” said Maki.
This time it was Maki, who was already part of the department’s fire investigation unit, who stepped forward and offered to become the new K-9 handler. A month and a half ago, he was sent to Alfred, Maine, to meet his new charge and train with eight other dog/handler teams from throughout the country. The dogs were all Labrador retrievers, a breed which Maki said is desirable due to its high energy and drive to please.
The first dog assigned to Maki, a black lab named Milo, did not work out because he still behaved too much like a puppy. After a week and a half Maki was reassigned to Wish, who had been going through the training as a spare.
Overall, the two spent four weeks, eight hours a day, in training.
“At the beginning, we were considered the dummy at the end of the leash,” said Maki with a laugh. “Every day was just amazing to see how fast these dogs were capable of learning.”
The dogs train numerous times a day in basically five different scenarios. One is scent discrimination, where the dog learns to sniff through burned materials from a fire and distinguish between them and the scent of a liquid accelerant such as gasoline.
“A dog has something like 220 million olfactory cells,” said Maki of their astounding ability to detect scents, “compared to only 5 million in humans.”
Another training drill involves an evidence lineup, where the dogs learn to distinguish which article of clothing has traces of an accelerant on it. The dogs also train in people lineups, where they are challenged to pick out which person in a group has gasoline or another combustible fluid on his or her shoes, hands or other parts of the clothing or body.
The dogs were also trained in “field sniffs,” where they are taken into open areas and taught to seek out items containing accelerants, such as gas cans or rags with gas on them.
Finally, they learn to navigate a “confidence course,” where they are asked to cross over an unstable bridge, jump hurdles, walk a narrow beam and climb stair accesses.
Maki explained that the dogs are motivated with food rewards as they go along, and that is the way they receive the entire food allotment for the day.
“It keeps their drive going,” he said.
When the dog detects the scent of an accelerant, it is trained to immediately sit.
“Then their eyes go straight to the handler’s food pouch and they make eye contact with him,” Maki said.
As for the handlers themselves, Maki said they learn to “read” their dogs and keep them moving until they make a find.
Wish and Maki came through their training with flying colors, though Maki admitted he was a little nervous at the final certification test conducted by the Maine State Police.
“They told us what goes on up here goes right down the lead,” he said. Fortunately, his nerves didn’t affect the way Wish performed, and when all was said and done, she received her certification and her official badge, which she now wears around her neck.
Maki said he and Wish continue to train on their own for part of every day, and they will need to go through a three-day refresher training and recertification annually.
The CAFD remains the only department in the state to have a K-9 investigator, and they have found from past experience that the program reaps numerous rewards. A few years ago, investigators could spend days or weeks sifting through rubble at a scene. With a trained dog, the work can be done in less than an hour.
Prior to the use of K-9 teams for this type of work, fire debris samples submitted to forensic laboratories by investigators yielded only a 30- to 40-percent positive result. By using the K-9s to more closely examine the fire scene, the better quality samples investigators now send for analysis yield an 80- to 90-percent positive result.
“The dog extends the capabilities of the investigator,” said Maki. “The scent-discriminating abilities of a canine are better than any equipment we can take to a fire scene when arson is suspected. The K-9 will lead the investigator to the location of the accelerant, so the investigator can take a sample to the state’s crime labs in order to prove arson.”
In the short time that Wish has been in Cloquet, Maki said she has already become a great family dog as well as a K-9 partner. She gets along well with his wife and their 2-year-old child. She also fills a gap that has remained empty in their hearts for the past two years — ever since their family’s 12-year-old black lab passed away.